Time for a complete overhaul

PERHAPS, there is no competition in any discipline that is as vague as the Commonwealth championship in chess.

PERHAPS, there is no competition in any discipline that is as vague as the Commonwealth championship in chess.

Where else would you have men, women, boys and girls clubbed together to decide champions in seven categories, separately for both genders?

Worse, unlike the World, Asian and National championships, the Commonwealth medal winners can never be sure of making the medal-bracket even after the final round. So ambiguous are the yardsticks. Sounds absurd? Well, that is how it is.

Right from the format to the compilation of the winner's list, the rules followed are unlike in any other competitive discipline.

Which other sport offers you the option of playing in the Commonwealth championship by paying Rs. 25,000? Yes. Even a child who does not know the difference between cheese and chess can enter the field by paying up. If the resourceful parents of more than 30 players from India chose to pay this huge amount to enter the field in the Commonwealth championship that was held in Mumbai recently, it was because they were eying the Union Government's cash incentive scheme, which gives Rs. 15,000 to 50,000 to the medallists of sub-junior age-groups. Players from Andhra expect much more from their generous State Government funds.

Well, this is a win-win situation for both the players and the organisers. The organisers are happy to get hefty entry fees while such players try to make the most out of the certificate that gives the impression that he or she has represented "India" in the championship. As a result, some prospective sponsors get fooled by such a certificate and end up backing some undeserving player, at least for a while.

Both the Union and the State Governments, while giving away the "cash incentives", seldom care to check the quality of competition faced by these age-group medallists. This year, in the under-20, under-18, under-14, under-12 and under-10 sections, only Indians were in the field. In the under-16, Malaysian girl Siti Zulaikha was the lone overseas challenger.

In other words, India was assured of all but one medal even before the event commenced.

Even in the women's section, where the Union Government gives Rs. 10 lakhs as cash incentive with Rs. 5,00,000 going to the winner, it was effectively an all-India affair.

In this scenario, it would be a good idea to ensure that there are challengers from at least three nationalities in each of the age-group sections to make the category worthy of Commonwealth medals.

For instance, players from non-Commonwealth countries are happily included in the field. These players, who get "appearance fee" by the organisers, are invited to enhance the quality of competition and also help create norm possibilities.

However, more often than not, these players, mostly from the breakaway Soviet Republics, end up playing a decisive role in determining the champion in various categories. No wonder, the existing format invited criticism from the leading players, including the eventual men's gold medal winner, Nigel Short, and India's oldest Grandmaster Pravin Thipsay.

Another major flaw with the event is the manner in which the age-group prizes are decided. Going by common sense, any one would agree that players should be placed depending on the number of points scored by them. Since the practice is to give just one prize to one player, the Commonwealth chess championship ends up distributing prizes, some to those who deserve and the rest to those who don't.

This year, too, it was no different. Chief Arbiter Stewart Reuben and his team took close to four hours to finalise the list of Commonwealth medal winners. Still, the list had its share of flaws.

Though the age-groupings of the players are compiled early enough, when it comes to determining the medallists, considerations other than performance come into play.

If one goes strictly by the points earned by the players eligible for age-group medals, the list of medallists in almost every category needs to be revised.

Some medallists should have got medals in higher age group. That would have meant some of the current medallists going out of the list and making way for some deserving names. But in chess, convenience has mostly superseded correct criteria.

Even Stewart Reuben, the 64-year arbiter, who has been part of the Commonwealth chess for decades, agrees that time has come for a change. "I think it is ridiculous to call this event as `Commonwealth chess championship incorporating International Open.' What rubbish? People, all over the world, are laughing at this. The term `International Open' means nothing."

Ask the players, arbiters or even the organiser, everyone would agree that several things needed to be changed in the championship. But is anyone listening?